What causes tailbiting?

Many years ago, at the start of my career, I had many callouts to do with tailbiting, writes John Gadd. My early suggestions seemed to bear fruit, so I started to phone or visit the previous producers to acquire feedback on whether things had improved or not.

You can learn from this, and the clients appreciate it. Because I’ve now done this follow-up for 40 years, I have a thick ‘tailbiting’ file of 162 observations on what might be causing it – or not.

Like many others who have commented on the possible causes, the problem is complicated. In the early days, stuffy ventilation and nutrition seemed to be common causes. But today, when we’re feeding our pigs much better, there seems to be little difference in incidence. Even the winter (when buildings tend to be too closed-up) and summer (when they’re not) doesn’t seem to make juch of a difference.

Over the years,  I’ve become persuaded – by the pigs themselves – that “a lack of something to do” could be a modern cause, often coupled to overcrowding stress, which is a world-wide failing in my opinion.

Yes, I do still see the occasional tailbiting case when pigs are on straw with ample room in larger yards or big pens, but to date the positive:negative ratio could be as high as 20:1. This suggests that the two “S”s, space and satisfaction, are pretty important in lessening tailbiting.

Where satisfaction/something to do is concerned, springloaded “chews” fixed to the floor seem to be working well. Maybe the “rooting” instinct is also involved, as I’ve noticed that providing a 2m length of toughened alkathene tubing the pigs can push around helps prevent it – as long as none of the primary factors in my survey below are at play to override the benefits. 

By the way, I’ve never liked hanging chains as they seem to increase aggravation. Pens with them I’ve watched seemed restless compared to those without.  Also, some playthings need regular changing as the pigs get bored with them – but the provision of straw always seems a pretty useful preventive.

My survey results are subjective findings and based on one man’s experience, but addressing these problems were found to have stopped or lessened the disorder.

My overall view after all these years is that comfortable, contented pigs are unlikely to tailbite!

  Analysis of 162 outbreaks since 1984 
Areas of attention Incidence
Overstocking 60%
Inadequate ventilation 40%
Gases (CO2/NH3) 15%
Cold draughts at night 20%
Poor pen layout causing aggression 10%
Sick/injured pigs not removed promptly 50%
Genetics – tendency to lose docility (a bloodline change worked) 15%
Diet which pigs disliked – possibly a sudden change involved. * 15%
Water inadequacy 20%
* – While today’s level of 0.4% salt is adequate, the late Mike Muirhead’s advice to double it for a while (with an eye on water availability) which I have tried, seemed to work in five difficult outbreaks. Maybe it was masking an unpalatable taste.

> John Gadd, who is celebrating 60 years’ involvement in pig production this year, has had more than 2,800 articles about pigs published and has written three best-selling pig textbooks. With hands-on experience that includes managing a grow-out herd at 1,800 ft in Banffshire, Scotland, and 20 years in the allied industries with Boots’ Farm Department, RHM Agriculture and Taymix, he set up his own international pig management consultantcy in the mid 1980s and has now visited more than 3,000 pig units in 33 countries as a pig management adviser. (Photo courtesy Bournemouth Daily Echo)

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About The Author

John Gadd, who has spent 60 years' involvement in pig production, has had more than 2,800 articles about pigs published and has written three best-selling pig textbooks. With hands-on experience that includes managing a grow-out herd at 1,800ft in Banffshire, Scotland, and 20 years in the allied industries with Boots' Farm Department, RHM Agriculture and Taymix, he set up his own international pig management consultancy in the mid 1980s and has now visited more than 3,000 pig units in 33 countries as a pig management adviser. (Photo courtesy Bournemouth Daily Echo)